Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Hundreds of firefighters, families, and friends on Friday evening gathered in Alamo Plaza for a candlelight vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of firefighter Scott Deem's death.
Deem, a six-year veteran of the San Antonio Fire Department, was 31 years old when he died while fighting a large fire at a strip mall on the Northwest side on May 18, 2017. Deem’s unit, Station 35, was the first on the scene. Two other firefighters, Brad Phipps and Robert Vasquez, sustained injuries in the fire.
At the time, the local department had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty in 20 years.
Station 35 received a new ladder truck which was unveiled during the ceremony. One side of the truck features a small mural of Deem by San Antonio firefighter and artist Kris Dean.
Crowd members – many of them in shirts bearing Deem's photograph or name – participated in a moment of silence with emergency dispatch operators.
Organized by SAFD and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, the vigil was peaceful and solemn, a wreath of flowers in Deem's honor displayed in front of the Alamo. Many in attendance wrote notes in his memory and stapled them next to his photograph. Three fire trucks took up the right lane of Alamo Street and an American flag blew in the breeze. Tears were shed, but the overall message was togetherness.
"We're committed to making sure that the department gets better and we don't lose anybody else," fire union President Chris Steele told the Rivard Report on Thursday. "I think that's what Scotty would have wanted."
Brian Vera, Scott Deem's cousin, attended the vigil with his family, holding a large flag with "DEEM" printed on it in capital letters. He told the Rivard Report that he and his family felt tremendous support, even one year after Deem's death.
Deem is survived by three children – Dakota, Tyler, and Aubrey – and his wife, Jennifer, who was pregnant with Aubrey at the time of his death.
"We want to thank the citizens of San Antonio for their love, support, and comfort," Fire Chief Charles Hood told the crowd on Friday. "... What we've been through this past year has made us a more resilient fire department. It has brought us closer together. It has made us stronger. We will go on ... We celebrate Scott Deem today, he's an amazing young man, and it is a tragedy that we lost him ... but it is important for citizens to understand that we will always be there on their worst day."
At Deem's funeral service in May 2017, Hood called Deem a “a true American hero,” and said the fire at the Ingram Square shopping center, with “brutal heat and some of the thickest blinding smoke I’ve ever seen,” proved to be the most challenging blaze in his professional career.
“In the end it was Scott who made the ultimate sacrifice, holding fast to his pledge," Hood said.
The owner of a gym where the fire started admitted he purposefully started the fire to get out of his lease at the strip mall. Emond Javor Johnson was charged with one count of arson, one count of arson resulting in death, two counts of arson and bodily injury, and one count of murder. For a separate incident, he was also charged with misdemeanor theft of service. Johnson is in custody at Bexar County Jail, awaiting his next court date on June 8.
While a report on the incident released by the Texas Fire Marshal’s office earlier this year stated that Deem's death and injuries to the other firefighters “were preventable,” officials do not expect that to impact the criminal case against Johnson.
"The sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one can be difficult for many," District Attorney Nico LaHood told the Rivard Report via email Friday. "We should take the time to remember our loved one, draw support from family and friends and, for our family, invoke peace that can only come from the Lord. I will continue to pray for the Deem family as they go through this process."
The fire department has changed some of its procedures as a result of the deadly fire and report, Hood said after the report was released. Those changes include more training in risk assessment for firefighters.
On Saturday, May 20, the local firefighter hockey team, San Antonio Fire Hose Hounds, will host the first annual Scott Deem memorial game at the Ice & Golf Center at Northwoods, 17530 Henderson Pass. Tickets to the 3:45 p.m. game with the Dallas Police Department are $10 and "jerseys will be auctioned off to the highest bidders," according to a fire union Facebook post. "These will be special Scott Deem jerseys. The only way to get one is to be there."
All proceeds will benefit the Responders First Foundation, an internal fund for firefighters battling cancer.
The 100 Club of San Antonio also accepts donations. The nonprofit provides scholarships for families of fallen police officers and firefighters.